Closing the gap: a study of student and staff responses to coursework feedback in psychology

 image: iStock phototechno
image: iStock phototechno

Do students and staff have a shared understanding of what good feedback is? In the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, colleagues in Psychology ran some surveys to find out.

Last year Psychology, like other subject areas across the University, moved to electronic marking of all coursework on Turnitin. This led us to ask how best to use this new medium to deliver written feedback. At the same time, the National Student Survey (NSS) has brought a now-familiar emphasis on feedback accompanied by an apparent gap between students’ high ratings of our teaching and lower ratings of our feedback. Staff are spending additional time and effort providing written feedback, and some feel that students do not always appreciate or even try to use it. Finally, moving into the last phase of our successful programme restructure called for careful thought about how to build a refreshed, coherent Honours programme.

Our first survey measured student satisfaction with feedback given on Turnitin for final coursework for 13 Honours courses.  Almost two thirds of Honours students rated their feedback as ‘good’ or ‘very good’. But when we matched students’ ratings of the feedback with independent staff ratings of the style of comments used on Turnitin, we found high correlations. This told us that although our best practice was excellent, differences between courses in the style of the written comments also made a difference to students’ satisfaction with their feedback.

Our second survey sampled from all Honours students, but now the students themselves rated the style of their feedback and gave free-form comments on their experiences.

Results from the two surveys converged. According to our students, good feedback offers an overall summary, shows how to do well in future, is specific about how marks were gained or lost, and is positive as well as negative in tone.  We now provide markers with guidelines for written feedback based on these outcomes. Encouragingly, markers providing the ‘best’ feedback in the first survey had not taken any longer to mark than their colleagues.

The other finding that really stood out was how highly students rated formative feedback on drafts of their work – we have recently extended this from Year 4 dissertations to some Year 3 work.

How can we use our data to close the gap between students’ perception that teaching is excellent and their ambivalence towards feedback? Both surveys indicated that, based on written feedback, students can more easily see how to do better on the same piece of work again than how to do well on others in future.

One way forward is to give more formative feedback within longer and larger courses, something we are building into our new Honours curriculum. A more challenging but rewarding project will be to develop students’ understanding of marking standards and criteria, and the over-arching skills they try to foster. By building in teaching methods which foster assessment literacy, we hope to help students make more use of each piece of feedback and – we hope – to foster greater coherence in the programme as a whole.

Next steps:

Read the Edinburgh University Students’ Association report on good practice in feedback from their analysis of Teaching Award nominations.

Find out more about research at the University of Edinburgh into feedback and assessment – the Leading Enhancement in Assessment and Feedback (LEAF) Project

Read this Teaching Matters post on assessment literacy by colleagues in the School of Social and Political Science.

Dr Alexa Morcom

Alexa Morcom is the Director of Teaching in Psychology in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences. Find out more on Alexa’s staff profile.

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